When the subject of trout streams is brought up, many anglers envision large rivers and streams such as the Yellowstone and Bitterroot in the West or the Beaverkill or the Delaware in the East. Large hatches of mayflies, wading belly button deep and double haul casts are mentioned in conversation. Many of these anglers are missing some of the most exciting fishing around, particularly when the larger waters are too high, too low, too warm or too cold.
Small stream fishing can be some of the finest fishing in many regions of the country. Whether it is cutthroats out west, browns in the Midwest, brookies in the East or grayling in the far North, many anglers pass by these little wild trout venues in search of “more productive” waters. Smaller streams typically remain fishable through many more weather events than their larger cousins and have often saved a trip when popular water is blown out.
Finding a small stream that holds a decent amount of fish is often the most difficult task. Since these streams lack the popularity of the big names, it is highly unlikely that an angler will find a ton of printed or internet information. While some guidebooks do mention the smaller streams, often the best way to locate these streams is by using a good map and a pair of hiking boots.
Often, stream size, gradient, and characteristics can be determined before actually visiting the stream by careful study of topographical maps. For instance, in my home state of Pennsylvania, a freestone stream has to be a blue line on the map for at least a couple of miles before it gains enough volume to hold trout. Gradient is also very important in determining the quality of angling. A stream that crosses many gradient lines on a topo map often does not have the riffle/pool characteristics to hold good numbers of trout.
Usually, streams with little gradient are better for browns than brookies.Too little gradient often results in not enough oxygen and can hold warmer water temperatures considered less-than-ideal for producing large numbers of trout. A small stream that flows into larger stocked water will often harbor trout as soon as the temperature of the big water becomes too warm or the oxygen level is depleted.
There are several other factors that determine if, and how many, trout will be in a stream. Acid rain and Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) can limit or even eliminate trout in a stream. Logging or other removal of trees along the stream can cause the temperature to rise beyond safe levels for trout. Pollution, a problem that plagues trout as well as many other species, also has a major impact on streams across the country – around the world for that matter. Many times, these factors will not be apparent until the angler actually has a chance to see or fish the stream. Once a productive stream has been located, the angler will next determine how best to catch the skittish trout that live there. Wild trout in small streams can be caught with many types of tackle, including flies, live bait, and hardware such as spoons, spinners, and trout in a small stream is usually pretty simple. Most trout will be positioned in small holes and pockets either behind or closely adjacent to cover like rocks and logs. Trout that are actively feeding will often be found in much shallower water. As with most flowing water situations, fish usually will position themselves just out of the current, allowing the flow to deliver both insects and disoriented baitfish past their lair. Holes where two streams join, the confluence, are often hotspots.
Although not as popular today as in the past, live bait is perhaps the most effective way to catch small stream trout. The ever-popular redworm, along with nightcrawlers, mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers, and minnows, is all proven small stream baits. While it seems that bait fishers prefer spinning gear, many continue to fish bait the traditional way, with a fly rod.
The main disadvantage is the fact that fish will often swallow the bait thereby limiting viability after release. Fishing a tight line and setting the hook as soon as the fish takes the bait can prevent such deep hooking, as well as using larger than normal barbless hooks.
Fishing small hardware upstream with a short spinning rod is an excellent way to lure wary wild trout. Because the spinning rod requires no room for a backcast, spinfishers can cover water in tight places much better than a fly fisher. Because treble hooks can be more dangerous to trout, many anglers purchase or modify their baits to have a single hook.
Fly fishing for small stream trout is simple and difficult at the same time. Often, precise casts are required to place the fly where it needs to be. Backcasts are difficult, or nearly impossible, with many anglers inventing new casts on each pool. Fortunately for the angler, small stream trout are rarely as particular as their big water counterparts. As long as one can get a reasonably accurate cast to an un-spooked trout, chances are good for the angler.
Dry flies, wet flies, streamers, and nymphs are all used with success on small streams. Many find that the larger trout prefer meaty streamers and nymphs, but others prefer to witness a sometimes violent rise a rod length or two away. Flies tend to be larger attractor patterns, while on occasion raising more selective trout will require a smaller, more exact pattern of the bug du jour. Most streams fish best with a six to eight-foot leader with a fairly stout size tippet, which turns the fly over better as well as frees flies that inevitably become lodged in trees and boulders. False casting should be kept to a minimum, as the shadow from the line can often spook paranoid trout.
While selecting the proper gear, bait, and lure are important, the most crucial part of catching small stream trout is presenting the bait without spooking the fish. One should be as stealthy as possible, particularly when the water is shallow, clear, or both. Often, a hands and knees approach is most effective. Occasionally the angler can hide behind trees and rocks, concealing the approach. Often times, particularly in high gradient streams, quietly wading upstream and casting as you go is easier and allows more room for casting.
While angling for trout anywhere they live is an exciting experience, slowly creeping up to a nice pool where a trout has lived virtually its whole life and fooling it in its home water is one of the biggest thrills in the fishing world.